Los Angeles-based photographer Ilona Szwarc's recent three-book trilogy I am a Woman and I Feast on Memory; I am a Woman and I Play the Horror of My Flesh; and I am a Woman and I Cast No Shadow is a series of unsettling photographs using beauty tutorials as a metaphor for cultural assimilation. As a child, the Warsaw-native frequently visited the United States and wondered what it would be like to grow up as an American. When she moved to NYC as a young adult, she began using photography to help her understand this through two photographic series on the culture of American Girl dolls, and Rodeo Girls. While each project captured facets of American identity with a uniquely poetic, and consciously feminist lens, their representations only partially answered her youthful fascinations, they were made, as she acknowledges, by an outsider looking in. So, from 2014-2015, while working towards her MFA at Yale university, Szwarc turned her gaze inward and began making strange, theatrical photographs of her doppelgängers.
Szwarc’s new work ponders the process of absorbing an identity and assimilating into a new culture through physical transformation. The three books use simulated beauty “tutorials” and portraits to create a narrative of a fictitious character evolution. Stark lighting and step-by-step application of grotesque makeup depict her doppelgänger transitioning from a straightforward portrait – one that might easily appear as a contemporary fashion editorial - into distorted variations of herself. “Employing the use of lookalikes,” says Szwarc, “I am exploring aspects of mirroring, staging and performance, seeing myself in the face of the other. I am interested in notions of becoming - how an individual assimilates and makes oneself imperceptible in society while engaging a series of internal transformations aimed at finding a kernel of truth amidst the noise.”
Szwarc’s narrative follows an actress undergoing the process of becoming the persona she will play on stage, beginning with “before” shots – straightforward portraits with the actress wearing what we presume is her own clothing, and ultimately developing into full character. At times she inserts props that suggest Polish and Eastern European culture, cueing in her own personal history and the desire to culturally adapt. “The concept of the ideal self is at the core of all my work.” Says Szwarc. "This new work brings out the process to the forefront. It is not about who the character becomes, but what it means to shift around and change one's appearance in relationship to one's identity.”
Szwarc also includes fabricated “behind the scenes” images to exaggerate this construction with a supposed evidence that the tutorials took place. Instead of revealing anything about the women or their relationship, as many editorial photos of this sort might pretend to, they complicate the psychological mystery between them where little other information about their identities exists.
Ultimately for Szwarc, this process of aesthetic assimilation, of layering makeup and other cultural signifiers is hollow and creates an overall feeling of emptiness. “Through my experiments,” she says, “I have found that becoming is a process of elimination, a construction that moves progressively towards a void, an erasure of meaning, a subversive act of annihilation. The ultimate negation is death. The corpse becomes a character.”
Bio: Ilona Szwarc (born in Warsaw, Poland 1984) received an MFA in Photography from Yale University in New Haven, Conn. and a BFA from School of Visual Arts in New York City. She has had solo exhibitions at Foley Gallery in New York City, Claude Samuel in Paris, France, Amerika Haus in Munich, Germany, and Maison de la Photographie in Lille, France. Her work has been shown in group shows internationally – in London, Bilbao, Warsaw, Lodz, Chicago, and most recently at Regen Projects in Los Angeles and Danziger Gallery in New York. Szwarc has been awarded Richard Benson Prize for Excellence in Photography (2015), Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture (2014), World Press Photo (2013). In 2014, she received Alice Kimball Traveling Fellowship from Yale University. Szwarc’s photographs have been featured in numerous publications worldwide including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, TIME, The UK Sunday Times Magazine, The Telegraph Magazine. Ilona Szwarc is based in Los Angeles.